Why Did Pirates Die Out?

The Golden Age of Piracy spanned from approximately the 1650s to the 1730s. However, piracy declined steeply during the 1720s and 1730s to the point where it died a seemingly natural death. But why did piracy experience this decline and die out?

Pirates died out because navies of the time started to get stronger and more modernized and were able to hunt down pirate ships. Additionally, pirate attacks on merchant ships were causing a significant blow to trade, giving European nations greater motivation to hunt down pirates.

Classic literature and modern movies have glorified the life of pirates in our minds. The life of adventure on the high seas draws many people into its lure—but the reality is far from glamorous. This article will explore the reasons for the decline of piracy in further detail. It will also explore the status of pirates today.

Why Did the Golden Age of Piracy Decline and End?

There were several reasons that the Golden Age of Piracy declined. These include:

End of the War of the Spanish Succession

Between 1713 and 1715, a series of peace treaties emerged (known as the Treaty of Utrecht) to affect the War of the Spanish Succession. [1] One of the results of the war’s end was that numerous trained sailors that were once a part of the war were now without employment. 

Many of these sailors turned to piracy—but many also sought employment with the many European naval units. Because European navies were now more substantial and better organized than ever before, they were now capable of hunting down more pirate ships.

More Attacks on Merchant and Slave Ships

As mentioned above, many of the sailors without jobs turned to piracy. The higher number of pirates on the high seas meant that merchant ships were under more significant threat. More than ever before, piracy was causing severe damage to trade between nations — and this served as a greater impetus for European countries to hunt down pirates. 

As part of their attacks against merchant ships, pirates also attacked slave ships. Many pirate ships offered the enslaved people onboard these ships the opportunity to escape slavery and become pirates themselves. Not only did this increase the number of pirates, but it also severely impacted profits and was another reason for nations to get serious about attacking pirates.

The Loss of Nassau

Nassau in the Bahamas was the last home base of the pirates. [2] Despite officially being a British colony, it was a de facto pirate republic, ruled by the same pirates that so terrified travelers on the high seas.

By the early to mid-1700s, Nassau was the pirates’ last “home base”—the last of the pirate republics to offer a true refuge from European powers hunting pirates.

This situation changed in 1718 when Woodes Rogers was named the Captain General and Governor in Chief of Nassau. [3] He had the task of bringing order to Nassau and returning it to British rule, which he certainly did. The fact that many pirates had already left the life of piracy and taken the King’s Pardon also helped Rogers achieve his aim—as discussed below. 

You should note, however, that some pirates, including Blackbeard, waged war to keep control of Nassau. Ultimately, however, Rogers and the British Crown came out victorious—with the loss of Nassau, there was nowhere safe for the pirates to go.

The King’s Pardon

In 1717, King George I offered to pardon any pirate who surrendered by September 5, 1718. Many pirates who had tired of life as outlaws were more than happy to take the pardon, either leaving the life of piracy altogether and settling on land or joining the British Royal Navy.

One of the best-known pirates to take advantage of the King’s Pardon was Benjamin Hornigold. Hornigold was the pirate captain who had first appointed Blackbeard as his second-in-command—but when offered clemency, he took the pardon and spent the last years of his life hunting down pirates for Rogers. [4]

More pardons were offered in the following decades as wars between European countries, like the War of the Austrian Succession and the War of Jenkins’ Ear, created a demand for skilled sailors capable of fighting at sea. [5] Thanks to these pardons and better pay for sailors in the navy, piracy was not worth it for many former pirates.

Harsher Punishments

As European nations became more serious about hunting down pirates, they also increased the punishments for people arrested for piracy. [6] Where previously many pirates could escape or bribe their way out—now most authorities were hanging captured pirates. This increased risk of punitive repercussions to piracy and made the King’s Pardon all the more appealing.

Is Piracy Completely Dead?

While the Golden Age of Pirates has died out, and sea travel is the safest it has ever been, piracy has never indeed died out.

Pirates are still active today, though much lower in number than during the heyday of piracy. Worldwide, people reported 195 incidents of piracy in 2020 alone. [7]

Piracy today is no longer centered around European nations and the Caribbean Sea. Instead, most acts of piracy take place in African and Asian waters. In particular, the waters off the coast of Somalia are a hotbed for modern pirates. 

Additionally, several incidents of piracy have occurred in waters such as:

  • The Malacca-Singapore Straits
  • The Gulf of Guinea
  • Off the coast of Nigeria
  • In the seas around Indonesia

Like the pirates of old, the primary motivation for piracy today is money. Many modern pirates are extremely poor and turn to piracy to make money. However, unlike historical pirates, these individuals do not spend most of their lives at sea.

Instead, modern pirates coordinate attacks against merchant ships from the shore. Pirates carefully target vessels that would be most lucrative to attack and use advanced surveillance technology and weaponry. 

They also have a much clearer organizational structure than historical pirates and a sophisticated system of creating phantom ships with false identification they can use for piracy purposes. [8] 

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